A new range of mini spiral ovens is bridging the gap from small batch cookers to large spiral ovens commonly used by major food processors.
Small and medium-size food processors with plans to move from batch to continuous are left with few options when it comes to new cookers. As a result, the go to strategy becomes adding more batch ovens without the benefit of better yields and consistency major food processors obtain from large continuous cook lines.
Processors that get caught in the strategy of adding multiple batch cookers to meet increased demand also often simply run out of room.
As a result, many small to medium-sized food processors are now focusing on a new category of mini – and more recently micro-sized – spiral ovens as an affordable “bridge” from small batch cookers to large continuous cookers.
By way of example, U.S.-based ready meal manufacturers Simmering Soup, Garden Fresh Gourmet and B. Robert’s Foods have recently transitioned from batch to continuous cooking. International processors are also adopting the new technology, including Australia Jewel of India that specializes in Indian ready meals, Primo Moraitis and its roasted veggie products, and Moira Mac for a variety of fully-cooked meats.
“A food processor that is expanding production will get to the point where they need to move to a continuous cook line. The mini spiral gives them that option sooner,” says Adam Cowherd, International Sales Manager of food processing equipment manufacturer Unitherm Food Systems (Bristow, OK).
What is particularly appealing to small processors with these smaller spiral cookers is the consistency they can achieve. In the spiral cooker each product travels on a conveyor belt through the same exact cooking conditions.
On the other hand, batch cooked products are racked, which by its design makes controlling the final product difficult.
“The racks do not allow for an even cooking of all products in each batch,” explains Cowherd. “As a result, you see products on the top racks getting darker from overcooking, compared to products in the middle of the oven. This consistency problem detracts from product yield and quality, particularly when production is ramped up.”
Smaller processors tend to prefer batch-style cookers because these ovens provide flexibility for a variety of products, which can change on a daily basis. At the same time, they may view continuous cooking as only for large volumes of a particular product.
But these small spirals are also extremely flexible. They can roast, steam, bake, broil or even pasteurize ready-meals. Examples of the products range from baked quiches, meatballs, and chicken wings, to oven-roasted vegetables and steamed chicken breast.
Advanced touch-screen controls on the mini and micro spiral ovens allow processors to edit and store multiple recipes. It is not uncommon for small processors to have over 100 different recipes. Recipe selection is achieved through an easy to use interface that allows for quick adjustments and line changeovers.
The spiral oven, which offers important benefits such as minimal footprint, increased yield and consistent product, is the continuous cooking system of choice among many large food processors.
Cooking consistency is built into the spiral oven by design. As each product travels on the spiral belt through the oven, it is subjected to the exact same condition – the same temperature, the same airflow, the same humidity, and the same cook time.
“As a meat product cooks in the spiral oven, it bastes from tier to tier. This basting improves yield and product quality. Each product has the potential to pick up juices that are falling from the tier above. The end result is better yield, appearance and quality that is very appealing to food processors,” explains Cowherd.
The introduction of smaller spiral ovens has placed the technology into the hands of small and mid-sized producers of ready-to-eat frozen and chilled foods market. Developed by Unitherm Food Systems approximately five years ago, the “mini” spiral was the smallest of its kind on the market. It has since been surpassed by the company’s release of a “micro” version, which has an even smaller footprint.
The micro spiral is nominally 5’ wide x 7’ long x 7’ tall and has over 60 linear feet of belt. . A single micro spiral oven has the equivalent throughput of approximately three batch ovens. The company’s mini spiral oven is slightly larger at 8’ x 8’ x 8’ and has over 180 linear feet of belt with throughput of up to 1500 lbs. per hour.
These small spiral ovens are not scaled-back versions of the large spiral ovens used in mass production. They deliver all the same benefits of the larger continuous spirals, recipe selection and setpoint controls, only in a smaller footprint.
Cowherd adds that from a capital investment standpoint the micro and mini spiral ovens bridge the gap between the more expensive, and for small processors currently impractical, investment in large spiral ovens and relatively inexpensive batch ovens.
Not only are these new spirals attracting small processors, but large processors as well. The affordability and “scalability” of the micro spiral, for example, makes it an ideal R&D oven.
These ovens have also been well received internationally, where processors tend to have lower production volumes and footprint restraints, yet share the same desire for consistency and quality.